Updated: Sep 11

As the impact of the pandemic deepens worldwide, Sydney-based architect and urbanist Don Albert considers the impacts of lockdown and ultimately what this might mean for urbanism and climate change.

It is only every so often that events such as Hitler’s invasion of Poland, the attack of 9/11, or the collapse of Lehman Brothers lance the festering boil of public-versus-private ideology and present all the world’s nations with stark choices. Do we jump to the left, or step to the right?

In either case, the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 became just such a watershed moment when US President Donald Trump called a press conference on the 26th of February to downplay the impact of the then still ‘novel’ coronavirus saying the United States was the “number one most prepared country in the world” to deal with the impending pandemic. Wall Street, knowing better, smelt a rat. The Dow lost over 1,100 points and so began a week by week decline into what we all now know will likely to greatly eclipse the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-2009.

With months of social isolation ahead we are nowhere near turning the corner…

That the United States lost six crucial weeks in combatting the virus is another major indictment on Trump’s proven ‘anti-science’ leadership, having already kneecapped a department in the White House that had steered Obama’s administration through the Ebola crisis. But of course the US is not alone. In the UK Boris Johnson reversed an initial ‘herd immunity’ approach, and the mishandling of cruise ship Ruby Princess’s arrival in Sydney ~ amounting to 10% of Australia’s cases of the disease ~ is equally disastrous, yet it is a mere hiccup in comparison to the preventable calamity that Trump’s administration has on its hands.

Indeed Australia’s prognosis seems far less damned due to its relatively swift response to the pandemic, both in terms of lockdown and its emergency $17.6 billion fiscal stimulus through new and improved social and business grants.

With around $16 trillion dollars of private equity lost worldwide in less than a month, governments have scrambled to inject cash into their economies, but unlike the Wall Street bailouts of 2009, this time with millions becoming unemployed overnight, it’s for the person on the street.

Suddenly everyone is a socialist

The United States has passed the CARES Act which will pump $2 trillion into taxpayers pockets through one-off payments of a mere $1200 - unlike the ongoing grants as in the case of Australia and New Zealand - and a host of other market related tinkering in the vein of trickle down economics, the results of which are questionable at best and firmly debunked here.

Of these unprecedented fiscal interventions, sociologist Keith Khan-Harris poses the question,

“A successful response from a right-wing government to the coronavirus would raise the question, if you can act that way against coronavirus, why can’t you act that way all the time?”

This has a profound implication for the other most pressing existential challenge now relegated to the back-burner: climate change.

In addition to fiscal measures, since early March, war-like states of emergency for Covid-19 have precipitated 2-3 week total lockdowns for over one third of the world’s population, with the most stringent now occurring in South Africa, India, the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, Germany and Australia where police and military are patrolling, issuing spot fines and in more than one case, arresting defiant surfers.

On the 30th of March 2020 Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a flattening of the curve is now apparent for Australia which means that Australians can exhale for the time being, while still observing an arcane set of social distancing rules that, like the shambolic federal bush-fire response, is a function of Australia’s perennial commonwealth-versus-states power dynamic. Conversely, some observers have cheered that some individual states were legally able to ignore the prime minister’s recommendations in favour of their own more stringent lockdown terms.

Welcome back big brother

It seems like a lifetime ago that many of us had taken to the streets alongside striking school children to urge our governments into action on climate change. Isn’t it remarkable that we are now confined to our rooms to do a bit of digital striking, and brushing up on our cooking and thrifty home keeping skills, which may indeed be essential for much longer than the lockdown.

In addition to mandatory social distancing decrees, some governments around the world have taken to mobile phone surveillance to keep tabs on people’s movements during the crisis under the guise of ‘its for your own good’. Finally the idea of a common good has arrived with bells on. Unfortunately they are alarm bells.

“We are all in this together” has become an hourly refrain on television as leaders around the world unveil escalating crisis response measures that curtail civil liberty in the interest of the group. Where was this level of ‘care’ during the simpler times of Greta Thunberg’s transatlantic crusade to the United Nations in New York City, or the marches on the Australian government’s handling of the bushfires?

What is it about this little microbe that is seen as more of an existential threat than climate change; the statistics, damage, implications and costs of remedy of which are far greater?

The answer is short-term political gains for those in power, and what a tragic irony it is for the rash of neoliberal governments in the west to have to dust off the big government how-to manuals.

Of course Covid-19 is an indiscriminate, stealthy, and swift killer that we have not yet got our heads around and the lockdown responses are entirely necessary, however as some environmentalists note, in just three months, this microscopic virus has done more for the rapid reduction of greenhouse gas emissions than three decades of much thwarted climate change activism and carbon footprint calorie counting.

As many are arguing, the worldwide work-from-home response to covid-19 has cut emissions in the order of 25% and presents an opportunity to rethink what face-to-face work is ‘essential’ and what is not, and restructure accordingly. The impact of lockdown on transportation alone is telling, and if economies can survive in the new mode, planners will need to seriously reconsider the CBD-centric mode of corporate operation when considering climate change.

Even if they don’t, corporations will soon make determinations on not only what real estate is essential, but also which of their staff are too. Like the bankers who had to reinvent themselves as baristas, brewers and sharing economy gurus post-GFC, Covid-19 is going to create new modes of survival out of necessity and revised values.

Travel and hospitality have been the hardest hit sectors in the Covid-19 Pandemic. Credit: Victor He via Unsplash

Tourism and hospitality, the hardest hit sector will bounce back as it requires a relatively small outlay if infrastructure is already in place, however chickens and veggies in the garden, home-made clothes and less international holidays will remain the new normal for millions for long after the travel restrictions are lifted.

Its tempting to imagine that hard-hit cities like New York, where people are fleeing, will see rents tumbling will eventually see an influx of ‘normal’ people gain, at much lower price-points encouraging the kind of arty city New York used to be. The same applies for many of the world’s larger cities where the 1% can escape and others will be evicted to the fringes ~ they might end up enjoying their newfound new rural conditions enough to stay and energise those small towns.

The jury is out

On 20 March Foreign Policy asked 12 leading global thinkers for their predictions about how the world will look post-covid-19. The responses were wide ranging including: “a dramatic new stage in global capitalism”, “democracies will come out of their shell”, “a world less open, democratic and free”, “more China-centric globalization” and “more failed states”.

Of course, it’s very early days, but no matter how you look at it, the western-centric globalist jamboree is over, and this could present a major challenge to international cooperation on climate change.

Indeed, the socio-economic contagion of the pandemic, in a way born-of and exacerbated by globalisation, is yet to play out, but it’s clear to most that the damper is closing fast on globalism and the kind of political cooperation towards tackling climate change even more so. Cop 26 has been postponed, and who knows which countries will be in a position to make meaningful commitments by the new date of October 2021?

Going further, as Keith Khan-Harris suspects, the coronavirus pandemic presents an existential threat to right leaning governments but they may well spin the crisis to their own ends.

A return to science, and social-science

One thing that is certain however, is that compared with the rejection of expert advice that was so prevalent in the shock elections of Donald Trump and Brexit, there is now a reversal where expertise, especially scientific, economic and medical, is being consulted.

As Ian Jacobs, president and vice-chancellor of UNSW Sydney, and Matthew England, Scientia professor of the UNSW Climate Change Research Centre stated,

“The pandemic has united policymakers and the global scientific sector in a way not seen before. It proves that the same can be done for climate change. UNSW surveys of community attitudes across Australia conducted before Covid-19 showed that people saw climate change as the biggest ongoing issue facing the world. And most agree that a global alliance of universities can help overcome policy gridlock and better unite decision-makers.”

For spatial professionals, the climate emergency and the impending economic restructuring post-Covid-19 present the biggest opportunity for spatial theory since the advent of CIAM after the first world war, an important impetus of which was the public health concerns that arose from overcrowding cities during the industrial revolution.

Le Corbusier’s model of the Voisin Proposal 1925 - Credit: SiefkinDR Creative Commons 4.0

Modernism’s functional zoning and eradication of vital streets in favour of separated modes of transport and land-use was widely rejected in the 1970s and 1980s yet it remains the staple for so-called planning as long as it is peppered with a bit of mixed-use here and there.

This model, with its reliance on consumerist notions of ‘progress’, entwined as it is with the banal ‘work to pay off the mortgage and then retire somewhere else’ faustian deal, is going to be severely challenged post Covid-19. A new wave of entrepreneurship and locally attuned small business is inevitable.

Implicit in the de-globalisation and restructuring that is most likely post Covid-19, is a return to more localised means of food production, more localised industrial production, remote schooling, new ruralism and the decline of“just in time” delivery models.

The 20th Century economic quick-fix of digging things out of the ground, transporting them to the other end of the earth, burning them and bashing them into shape and then shipping them back again needs to be relegated to the trash heap, not recycled!

Netflix series Schitts Creek has showcased the virtues of small town living on location in Goodwood, Ontario

The relevance and urgency for green new deals, in every possible country, is crystal clear when we consider countries like Indonesia, India and the United States are woefully unprepared for the pandemic in terms of health care, and just how in a post-Covid-19 world of rebuilding devastated communities, many of the same concerns overlap with a more eco-social approach to stemming climate change.

Inner city Cape Town residents sing the national anthem during South Africa's lockdown.

Source: Greg Truen.

The time is now

As professionals, academics and laypersons alike, we want to feel that our choices are the right choices, and that we have agency, yet oftentimes life deals us a bag of lemons, not a smorgasbord. Covid-19 is the largest sack of lemons since the Black Death. It is at these critical moments that we need to be draw on the lessons of history and our innate creativity to imagine and build a better world.

The apparent paradox of closing borders yet returning to science and inevitably Keynesian economics is liberating for both left and right. In a sense we are all being sent back to school to rewrite the essay on our future. We should celebrate the opportunity this malicious microbe has brought.

As one of the world’s most cited polymaths Noam Chomsky said recently,

“We are now in a situation of real social isolation. It has to be overcome by recreating social bonds in whatever way can be done, whatever kind that can be helping people in need. Contacting them, developing organisations, expanding analysation. Like before getting them to be functional and operative, making plans for the future, bringing people together as we can in the internet age, to join, consult, deliberate to figure out answers to the problems that they face and work on them, which can be done.

While we mourn our dead and pity the grandparents who can’t be with their grandchildren at this extraordinary time, and while we lick our professional wounds and say goodby to commissions on hold or that may have vanished forever, now is the time to cheer the return of science, and not cower under the watch of the neoliberal demagogues who have yet to understand that we owe our lives and livelihoods to nature and not vice-versa.

Let’s make this the microbe that saved the world.

Fulbright Scholar Don Albert is the design principal of Sound Space Design Architects and Urban Designers and the founder of Climate Change Cities. This is an edited version of the article originally published on The Fifth Estate.

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As catastrophic weather events and pandemics disrupt our lives with disastrous effects, Sydney-based architect Don Albert considers where and how we will work in the future, by re-examining the past.

The 1994 Northridge Earthquake brought Los Angeles to its knees - Robert A. Eplett - FEMA Photo Library CC

Before digital nomadism and coworking became a thing, and years before the climate crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic forced us to start rethinking our lifestyles, I first sat down at my drawing board at University of California’s (UCLA’s) School of Architecture. It was the spring of 1996 and Los Angeles was still shaken by the US$20bn Northridge earthquake that had crippled the freeway system just over a year before.

In that quake, 57 people died and it was a pivotal moment in Los Angeles for two reasons; firstly, it coincided with the CBD’s commercial decline with tenants looking for larger floor-plates and cheaper rents; secondly, it came at the most “opportune” time in terms of the business world’s uptake of the Internet.

Immediately after the earthquake, 60 per cent of local businesses failed because their staff could not get to work. Those that failed were largely small businesses, whereas the survivors; banks, government, and utility corporations, were forced to adopt the Internet – dial up no less ­– so that their data processing staff could work from home.

This phenomenon, as discussed in our urban design studio and reported in the media at the time, was key to the uptake of the Internet in Southern California and the decentralisation of its corporations, particularly in media and utilities.

Of course, the profound effects of the Internet would have blossomed anyway. Nevertheless, what the Northridge quake did, was force businesses to adopt a new way of working: remotely. The seeds of off-shore outsourcing and digital nomadism had been sown.

With the deepening of the Covid-19 pandemic currently worldwide we see a similar work-from-home trend emerging.

The Barrows building in Durban, South Africa - Photo Ronnie Levitan

While still a masters student at UCLA, in February of 1997 I was invited to participate in a competition for a new retail merchandising facility in my hometown Durban, South Africa. Run by a then start-up firm called Barrows, the brief called for a novel way of combining sales, design, prototyping and printing and metalwork production under one roof.

As the two-week deadline loomed couriering the boards on time would have been impossible, so I enquired if the submission could be made via the Internet. This was unheard of in 1997 but the organisers agreed and the winning submission was received via email, one picture at a time.

In the end, the full design process happened via remote control in a way now taken for granted. Emails were sent and faxes were exchanged! Despite architects working remotely since the days of Rome, the speed at which the design process must now run has increased to instant “real-time” feedback via software and cloud computing.

After graduation I returned to Durban and was offered space in the Barrows building in order to start up my first two companies and to collaborate with Barrows in the establishment of their e-commerce systems.

Sharing the boardroom, eating at the canteen, hanging out on the balcony, playing foosball, rolling around on pilates balls and having an MTV blaring television as the receptionist, this was the very essence of coworking, which we were doing in 1999, years before the term was coined or turned into a multi-billion dollar real-estate phenomenon by the now somewhat wobbly WeWork. Nevertheless, the lessons remain relevant today.

Building as a proxy for the brand

But the Barrows building was not only innovative in terms of its execution and function. It also became a proxy for the Barrows brand during the initial dotcom boom when the value of a “bricks and mortar” presence was being questioned.

While one could argue that buildings like the Hoover Building in the UK, the Chrysler Building in New York City or Sydney’s recently converted Paramount Building are good examples of industrial buildings that remain as enduring proxies for their brands, what was different about Barrows, especially in the context of post-apartheid South Africa, was that all of its functions were to happen within one structure showcasing its flattening of social and corporate hierarchy to prospective clients.

The Chrysler Building endures as a proxy for the brand - Photo benontherun.com licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

This move was a challenge to the status quo that was more familiar with sales headquarters in CBD’s and factories on the outskirts, or, campus-styled parks exemplified by Walter Gropius’ Fagus Factory in Germany, or Eero Saarinen’s landmark General Motors Technical Centre campus in Michigan USA, where management, design engineers and labourers would rarely rub shoulders in the same canteen line.

Such “modern” campuses are the progeny of the granddaddy of all industrial estates, Trafford Park in Manchester: the world’s first, and largest remaining industrial estate introduced to the world at the same time that Ebenezer Howard was promoting his Garden City Movement, which called for clear distinctions between housing and industry, separated by green spaces.

A lesson for our times is what was critical to Trafford Park’s success, contrary to Howard’s Garden City argument; a village was planned right in the middle of it.

Built by Westinghouse, the village was a key condition for its purchase into the estate, and this cuts to the core of what is ecologically and socially responsible. Furthermore, the community was charged by the charming Trafford Park Hotel as a social hub and accommodation provider for business travellers. While most of the original factories are gone, the hotel remains, and after lying dormant for eight years is currently being recycled into a boutique hotel seeking to cater to the sports and culture fans now drawn to the repositioned precinct.

The Trafford Park Hotel is positioned in the centre of the world's first industrial estate - Photo circa 1905

Who doesn’t want to walk to work?

Indeed at Trafford Park Village we see the age-old logic of living as close to work as possible in its foundation, but there are better examples starting at the hunter-gather and subsistence levels – which are about as ecologically sensible as they could be – to the universal phenomenon of a shopkeeper who lives above his trade, to the weavers’ cottages of pre-industrial England (from whence the term “cottage industry” is derived), to communities within monasteries and then, a really unique one, the most intact medieval street in Europe, the Vicar’s Close, in Wells, Somerset.

Vicars Close, Wells AD 1430 - Photo by Amanda44 Wiki CC

But back to late-20th-century-USA, which was anything but quaint…

By the end of the 1950s, General Motors’ marketing of and catering to the United State’s obsession with the automobile saw vast tracts of land subdivided into dormitory suburbs throughout the nation, particularly in Southern California where the right to live miles away from logical places of work was sold as the American Dream.

"1956 General Motors Pontiac Catalina Advertisement Time April 2 1956" by SenseiAlan is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Indeed, the universally adopted ideal of “individualistic” freedom, including by Australians, has contributed to the socio-ecological crisis we now know to be climate change as the desire for oil fuelling motorised transport grew – in the amount of around 20 per cent of greenhouse gasses (GHG) by 2014.

Not only were people commuting further to work, general consumption of electricity grew thanks to newfangled consumer goods such as televisions, fridges, vacuum machines, air-conditioning, heating, swimming pools, hair-dryers and so on, the use of which currently contributes to a hefty 50 per cent of global GHG emissions.

So really, Westinghouse, Hoover and General Motors, exemplars of workplace design as they may have been, were also unwitting collaborators in the climate change mess we are in right now. Of course, they are not solely to blame.

Enter the Jet Age…

Nothing epitomised the apex of the 20th century more than the arrival of the Boeing 707 in 1958 which meant affordable air travel for the western middle classes. Tourism’s boom into far-flung destinations was immediate and the 707 would carry millions of passengers to “exotic” destinations, creating job opportunities for locals and foreign investment in places that did not have commodities to sell or inherent “industrial location” or “trade port” characteristics.

"N707JT" by joseluiscel (Aviapics) is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Formerly agrarian island communities like Bali, Barbados, Jamaica, Malta, Iceland and larger countries like Thailand and Croatia have since come to rely on air-travel to bring in the lion’s share of their economies.

The World Travel and Tourism Council’s 2018 Report pegs the international travel industry at just over 10 per cent of the world’s GDP, with one in 10 people being employed in the industry. With a sector growth rate higher than global GDP growth for the last eight consecutive years, and one in five new jobs being created in the world, we can see a profound shift from the consumer economy of the 1950s into the experience economy of the new millennium.

This is being driven by two key trends: firstly the rise of low-cost airlines, and secondly, the smart-phone and social media, in particular online booking channels like Airbnb and TripAdvisor that are bringing the sharing economy to travellers, and of course the Internet’s most successful lifestyle marketing platform, the multi-billion dollar economy of Instagram.

Because Insta…

Assisted by low-cost airlines, app-driven tourism to picturesque locations like the Maldives is supporting industries such as construction, transportation, engineering, food, hospitality, cleaning services, retail, waste management, education, training, infrastructure and health-care.

But it’s not just holiday making. In a recent survey reported by Forbes, 4.8 million United States citizens described themselves as “digital nomads”, which allows them to work location independently while ticking off the boxes on the hippy trail, updating their Instagram accounts and inspiring thousands of others to do the same. This phenomenon is fuelling an explosion of hospitality-driven growth in places like Bali, Byron Bay, Costa Rica and more recently, Portugal.

Conservative estimates put the “semi-permanent” Australian expat community in Bali at around 10,000 people – when I was living there the number often spoken of was 30,000 – and many of those people are operating Australian-born brands such as Deus Ex-Machina, Souq and Rebel&Stone, tapping into the creative talent that Bali’s inherently artistic community can supply at much cheaper rates than Australia could ever provide.

In identifying this new nomadic market, I personally developed the Voyager Boutique Creative Retreat in Canggu, Bali, which provided creative space and assistance for aspiring recording artists, painters, film makers, creative writers, and of course yoga and surf students. A Bauhaus in the tropics, as it were.

Our little boutique hotel fostered poolside networking beneath the palm-trees, inspiring other entrepreneurs and indeed our local neighbours who were keen to build similar establishments or start their own coworking spaces such as Dojo.

The Voyager Boutique Creative Retreat - Photo: Justin Boyd

Blending of business and leisure, and saving space…

Indeed, looking at any number of recent coworking spaces in Sydney, and at Mirvac’s recently completed FJMTStudio-designed Australian Technology Park building for Commonwealth Bank, an intentional blending of business and leisure is happening through hospitality-inspired spaces.

Although driven by the need to reduce dormant real estate in the form of unmanned desks, nowadays we have come to expect our workspaces to offer a series of informal, lush, hospitality-driven experiences for more casual interaction as compensation for the indignity of “hot desking”.

After all we may not meet face-to-face that often, but when we do, could we at least do it in an enriching environment?

AngloAmerican Reinvention proposal Johannesburg - Soundspacedesign Architects


In a perfect storm of ever-increasing air travel, fly-in-fly-out labour, outsourcing, location independent businesses, amazon-dot-com type delivery systems, data storage centres, bitcoin mining and digital nomadism ramping up the world’s reliance on electricity and transportation, the spectre of climate change has snuck up on the globalist jamboree and poses some profound questions. Clearly, as the striking students and architects of Australia have declared, we cannot continue with business as usual.

Understanding the incendiary landscape that Australia is, even before climate change, and, despite our ossification as a nation of commodity extractors and farmers; a policy shift away from coal to renewable energy sources – as is underway in countries like China, Germany and Costa Rica – is both urgent and inevitable. And so is a shift to a more balanced economy.

Where to for the work place?

Given that IPCC GHG emission targets are three times too low, and will likely never be met anyway, climate change catastrophes are expected to disrupt our day-to-day lives more often. It’s foreseeable then that businesses would want to decrease their reliance on centralised workforces and/or relocate to places less prone to heatwaves, bushfires, cyclones, floods, droughts, and inundation from the sea.

This is a multi-partisan emergency for national defence and urban management as well as the general public and business.

Australians are resourceful and pioneering, and we must embrace the climate change challenges that we face, especially the shift to clean energy jobs and the idea that some of us may need to resettle en mass to more hospitable places and perform in jobs not yet invented. Civilisation as we know it is going to change radically, social grants will be under extreme pressure (if they exist at all), and a shift to a neo-feudal way of life for millions and millions is inevitable.

In tandem with this, better work-life balance and more gender-equitable home duties are increasingly important to the working public, so it’s also easy to see why 25 per cent of Australian staff would want more flexibility in their ways of working too.

In the future we will see the nature of work changing: more reliance upon AI; more automation; less manual labour; more growth in the experience economy, transient accommodation and hospitality; more cottage-industry in terms of localised food production; less brick-and-mortar retail; more task-based collaboration; more emergency, health and care services; more mixed-use developments out of harm’s way; and finally, new settlements with guaranteed fresh water supply catering to a new class of refugee, the domestic and international climate change refugee.

New places of work will be: located closer to public transportation; implanted into existing dormitory suburbs; be attached to coliving spaces; designed with more flexibility and concern for lifecycle costs and energy consumption; provide an opportunity for urban farming; enhance community interaction with child-care and other social support.

Inevitably these new workplaces will provide for localised solar power generation, rainwater harvesting and the myriad of innovative app-driven “crowd sourced” permaculture innovations that are yet to come.

Developers and tenants are beginning to demand an eco-social workplace design that valorises the employee through tangible spatial benefits, and innovative social support mechanisms in order to ease worker’s increasingly stressed-out lives.

Don Albert is a Fulbright Scholar, the founder of Climate Change Cities and the design principal at Soundspacedesign Architects, Sydney. This article contains edited excerpts from his forthcoming book on climate change and urbanism and originally appeared in the Fifth Estate.

As the fires were still raging in the NSW south coast, architect and urbanist Don Albert had first-hand view of two shattered communities when he heeded the invitation to tourists to come to the area.

Tuross Lake 23 January 2020, Photo: Don Albert

The struggle to reconcile the complexity of the physical and political landscape will be big challenges, he says.

“Come to the South Coast NOW please”, the adverts said, meaning ‘”we need your tourist dollars, now!”. With this licence I nestled myself into a rented Commodore for a week’s road trip from Sydney southwards, to visit the affected towns and get a better understanding of the emergency gripping New South Wales.

The brief: to see first-hand how fire affected communities, emergency services and government were faring in their response to the fires, and to get an inkling of the long-term spatial prognosis for these settlements in the age of climate change.

My first stop was at a service station in Nowra, 160 kilometres south of Sydney. When I opened the car door, the glass was too hot to touch. I hadn’t realised it while driving, but the outside air had risen to 47 degrees Celsius and combined with the wind had become a blast furnace.

A policeman happened to be walking by, and I asked him if everything was okay out there?

“She’ll be alright”, he said. Bowing my head against a hail of eucalyptus leaves and twigs I wasn’t convinced, but so far I had not heard or seen any fire warnings so on I pressed.

The next sign things were not going to plan was when motoring through the vast stretch of forest south of Batemans Bay – incinerated by the massive Currowan Fire – five fire trucks and an equal number of police cars raced past me heading south, sirens blaring. This couldn’t be good, but the road was still open…sun shining, sort of.

And so it began, my own descent into the hell that many holidaymakers experienced for themselves during the festive season. With each kilometre travelled the sky shifted from a pale haze, to smoky-pink, to peach, then to an apocalyptic orange until it reached a brazenly baroque fury of turbo-charged mayhem coming from the west.

After the town of Moruya, just as I was battling to understand why there might be two setting suns glowing behind the hills, I realised that I was caught directly between two bushfires barrelling towards the Princes Highway. Moments later a roadblock diverted me to the normally stunning lagoon town of Tuross Heads.

The motel was full, and the owners kindly pointed me to the caravan park, which was also full, and they in turn suggested I register at the evacuation centre at the Country Club.  In the space of minutes I had gone from being an “invited tourist” to an evacuee.

From tourist to evacuee

I parked in a lucky spot near the entrance and after registering my details proceeded upstairs into what otherwise might have looked like a bingo night in full swing.

After discussing the variety of circumstances that fellow evacuees found themselves in – from the nervous Sydney Airbnb couple, to the retiree residents who seemed resigned with the situation, I was comforted by the general stoicism. I went down to bathe in the freezing Pacific. Like the culture wars stoked by this season’s bushfires, all hell roared overhead.

Later I decided to take refuge in the boot of the car, and so curled up with the windows ajar, eagerly awaiting the arrival of a predicted southerly squall that would diminish the danger. It came at 11pm.

The next day I drove back to the roadblock hoping it was going to be open. It was, but only in the direction of Bateman’s Bay, so I returned north to Mogo, a gold-rush heritage town of 300 people that had been devastated on the morning of New Year’s Eve.

House destroyed in Mogo, New Years Eve 2019, photo: Don Albert

Along with the heartbreaking damage to the natural world, and the affected Yuin people who have lost homes and their sacred sites, the destruction of Mogo’s tourist shops along the Princes Highway is probably what is top of mind to anyone who followed the fires in the media after New Year’s Day.

Whole swathes of the townscape on the western side of the highway were reduced to mere flakes of corrugated iron, leaving only a handful of charred totems to curse the sky.

The historic timber church, the home of Peter and Vanessa Williams’ Mogo Painting and Pottery Gallery, was similarly destroyed, as well as several homes, some of which were of solid brick construction. In all, over 500 homes have been reduced to ash in the region.

I asked the owner of a furniture store why he believed his shop was spared? “I had been spraying the grass in front for weeks in advance, and I kept the building wet during the fire. I also think it had something to do with the new fibre-cement boards I had on the back of the building. My building isn’t suspended above the ground like those other ones were”, he said, pointing to the string of adjacent shops that were lost.

Indeed the businesses that vanished were built on suspended timber floors that ameliorated the level change between the main road and the river bank a few meters below: a fire trap if the wind is blowing the wrong way, which it did on New Year’s Eve.

Being the invited tourist, I decided to patronise a shop specialising in gifts, kitchenware and so forth as I happened to need a new chef’s knife.

“Sorry the power is out! We can’t process it. Come back later…” Said the owners. This lead to a discussion about the cause of these bushfires and ways forward.

“I am not one of those ‘denialists’ but…”

“I am not one of those ‘denialists’ but, we’ve been here for 40 years and seen it all before. Climate change is real, but these fires are not caused by that…It’s just the way Australia has always been,” he argued.

Given the context I wasn’t going to relay the overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, nor the statements of 23 former and current fire chiefs, nor the ordinary emergency volunteers pointing the blame squarely at human induced climate change, nor the anguish of local First Nations people who have reportedly “never known fires like this”, so I bid the shop-owners farewell with a promise to return when the power was up.

My next stop was at a community recovery “BBQ” hosted at Mogo’s Boomerang Meeting Place – an advertised gathering convened by the Eurobodalla Shire Council and various NSW government departments including Health, Disaster Welfare, Mental Health and Housing.

Red Cross staff were also present, and didn’t take well to my probes about the Daily Telegraph’s reporting on the allegedly truncated distribution of publicly donated bushfire funds, which I sympathised with as surely some kind of misunderstanding?’.

The sun beat down hard and I took turns in sheltering under the makeshift stands, treading as carefully as I could.

After a few clipped conversations with various officials, a mantra emerged: There is no rush; it’s all about sympathy at this stage, and, “being there” for the victims.

Recovery needs to be at the speed the victims dictate.

And mostly: Now is not the time to ask big picture questions; in the initial recovery stages, compassion and mental support for the victims is critical.

According to professors David Forbes and Lisa Gibbs of the University of Melbourne, who have studied the response to the Black Saturday fires, bushfire trauma includes not only the primary effects of loss of life and property, but the secondary impacts on jobs, local services, social networks, and reduced opportunities for social gatherings, “because the church, community hall or sports club may be gone.”

According to their Beyond Bushfires Report of 2016, these distressing effects can produce serious and long term personal issues.

It is with an understanding of these secondary impacts that government has an additional role to play in the immediate and long-term response, apart from appropriate financial relief.

Tourism takes the biggest hit in the wake of the bushfire crisis, photo: Don Albert

Notwithstanding first responses however, one wonders when exactly the correct time and place to engage with communities on their long-term settlement prognosis in increasingly perilous circumstances will be? When is the nation going to confront the predictions that point to many more bushfire seasons like this one?

Most tellingly, after introducing myself as an architect and writer interested in urbanism in the age of climate change, the assumption of most people I spoke with was that I would advocate to rebuild immediately.

This wasn’t the case and I had already proposed a moratorium on new construction.

Referring to a report on the rebuilding in Murrindindi Shire after the Black Saturday fires where hundreds of homes have never been rebuilt –  impacting the affordability of municipal rates  – I asked the officials about how they felt about the long term resilience of towns like Mogo. It was a premature question, of course.

All that remains of a popular pottery and art business in Mogo, photo: Don Albert

Emotions were running high in Mogo

Emotions were running high in Mogo, understandably, but I assured officials I was just there to observe the process and gauge a sense of what is possible.

By 11:00 am, none of the expected guests (mostly Yuin) had arrived and a senior Eurobodalla councillor made it clear that I wasn’t particularly welcome “as a journalist”, and that if I wanted to remain I would have to seek approval from the matron of the Boomerang Meeting Place Church, which I later did.

More off-the-record conversations followed, touching on the federal government’s inherited yet still reinforced position by which Australian states must fend for themselves with regards to bushfire management whilst having the climate change rug pulled out from underneath them (through pro-coal endorsements), not to mention the unintended “make a disaster/relieve a disaster” codependency conundrum generally.

Inside the church, survivors were discussing the donated food, clothes and other items that were heaped on tables. “They think it’s a dumping ground” an assistant said. “They brought in three stinky mattresses and we had to pay $150 to get rid of them!”

One survivor made a careful selection of boxed savoury biscuits and a few choice bottled items and said goodbye. She was not staying for the barbecue.

Naturally we couldn’t discuss more than the planned events of the day, but I was asked to return the following week to flesh out my idea of a potential case study of Mogo’s recovery compared with the similarly devastated yet ultimately different farming town of Cobargo, some 30 kilometres south.

My immediate impression from talking with community members was that the Indigenous community was very open to lateral thinking about their future.

Later near Tuross Heads I was driving through smouldering parts of the highway that the last night’s fires had breached. My eyes, heart and head ached. Smoke lingered low along the entire stretch of road, and eventually filled a deep valley. When I saw hundreds of cars parked on either side of the road, I presumed it to be Cobargo.

It was the funeral of Patrick (29) and Robert (69) Salway, the father-and-son dairy farming team who died while protecting their family homestead in Wandella during the Badja Forest fire, also on new year’s eve.

RFS Volunteers join thousands of mourners at the funeral of Patrick and Robert Salway, photo: Don Albert

I had not known about the funeral, and had intended to make acquaintances in Cobargo for the purposes of the case study, but clearly, now was not the time for any of that – I would simply join the crowd, listen and bow my head too.

By all accounts, both men were an adored and integral part of their community with many stories of their good humour, ingenuity and generosity being told, always ending with the refrain “She’ll be ‘right…” as a comforting closure from both men.

There was not a dry eye in the cemetery by the time the heartfelt eulogies had ended. I cried for two men I had never met, yet deep down, coming from farming stock in South Africa myself, I knew exactly the kind of characters they must have been, and what it means to be part of a tight-knit community that is grieving one way or another.

I cried for the animals. I cried for the Australia I was coming to know, and as Amazing Grace rose up through the crowd, I felt strongly, it’s time to face another kind of music.

Smoke over the Pacific at Tuross Heads, photo: Don Albert

Time to face another kind of music

Yet with smoke and tears pouring in the valley, vigilance remained high. As the family paid their last respects and the coffins were finally lowered, an RFS team leader checked his phone receiving his team’s next instructions. Soon they were off.

This has become the new normal and as much as “she’ll be alright” is a local laconism, I am not convinced that this is the case, nor that now is the wrong time to ask big questions.

In the same way that America’s shock at its gun massacres blows over until the next attack, and in the same way that we as Australians criticise their inertia from afar, Australia too is inured to bushfires in a way that seems impenetrable from both inside and out.

In both countries people need time to heal emotionally, yet we don’t have time. In both cases there is an expectation from federal government to be there when it matters, and yet there is the questionable culture of keeping federal government at an arms length in day-to-day affairs and local planning.

Three weeks after the New Years Eve bushfires I had hoped that things would have returned to enough of a “normal” so that I could understand what happened and ponder future possibilities.

With so much fuel remaining, and another two months of summer ahead where people will sleep with one eye open, it’s impossible to broach such difficult questions without seeming impertinent, but so be it.

I didn’t get what I expected from this excursion, but I shall certainly be returning to Mogo and Cobargo to continue the conversations and case studies.

Indeed now may be too soon to be looking for clarity on how we plan for living and working at the frontier of such a perilous landscape in the age of climate change.

However, I think Mogo and Cobargo present an important dichotomy in terms of the diversity of their populations and how things might unfold in their long-term recoveries – with possible lessons for other climate-affected communities in the future.

Resilience is not just about building codes; it’s about social cohesion and a reason to stay, indeed for some, a reason to live.

Australia has had 15 royal commissions on bushfires in the past 20 years. With yet another imminent, the gaping chasms between our public and personal responsibilities for climate change and our responses to it need to be bridged once and for all.

If this isn’t done conclusively at this next opportunity, in a truly multi partisan way, the Australia we know and love will be done for.

It’s time for all of us to face the fire. Not in the ingrained, self-sacrificing way that heroes do, but in a holistic way that resolves our collective need for survival.

Fulbright Scholar Don Albert is the design principal of Sound Space Design Architects and Urban Designers and the founder of Climate Change Cities.

This article first appeared in The Fifth Estate on 13 Feb 2020, and is syndicated here by kind permission.

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